A yearning for flight is what draws most people to paragliding, and I was no exception. The happy illusion was quickly dispelled, however, that if I took one lesson I'd be rubbing elbows with the red-tailed hawks. Fact: The average novice paragliding pilot has taken at least ten two- to four-hour lessons. All I'd planned was one.
Nevertheless, unlike flying a light plane or a glider, or hang gliding, paragliding is relatively easy -- which can be a problem, according to Jeff Greenbaum, owner and operator of the paragliding school Airtime of San Francisco.
"The most dangerous thing about paragliding," he says, "is that it's one of the easiest ways to fly." Though the mantra "Launches are optional; landings are mandatory" certainly applies here, paragliding beats hang gliding hands down for flexibility and ease of operation. The wing, a self-inflating structure made of strong fabric and shaped like a slice of canteloupe rind, and the harness, including a seat, weigh relatively little and fit in a backpack, and setup and breakdown take 5-10 minutes.
Credit: Olivier Laude
Still, flying solo under one of these glorified kites is hardly a breeze (ahem). Informational articles and a prelesson ground school are part of the Airtime program. Each week, Greenbaum opens his home to pilot hopefuls and runs through all the background information needed to get them on their way.
I certainly feel as if I am at school again, scribbling notes, wondering whether I should have brought some index cards, silently preparing for the in-this-case-imaginary written test. Carabiners? Airfoils? Bernoulli's principle? New and heady stuff.
Among other things, I learn that the paraglider gets lift in two ways: by catching winds that ascend vertically when they run up against or are deflected from coastal bluffs, or by taking off from mountain ridges and riding thermals, columns of warm air that rise from sun-heated valleys below.
Our first lesson, however, takes place on a gentle training hill -- no rocky bluffs or craggy peaks for us, because the first step toward flight is simply to lift the wing properly. Greenbaum, who's been paragliding since 1988 and teaching wind sports since 1983, makes a point of working with only one or two beginners in order to maximize learning.
He begins by showing my fellow pupil and me how to perform the necessary safety checks. We inspect the wing for tears and the lines for knots, and check for anything else that might keep a paraglider from functioning properly.
Winging It: While instructor Jeff Greenbaum helps a classmate, the writer prepares her gear and contemplates a flair for flying.
Credit: Olivier Laude
Then he starts us on a reverse launch, a slightly complicated yet easier-in-the-long-run jump start to flight: You harness yourself up and hold the brake toggles (used to steer and regulate height and speed) and the risers (connectors to the lines attached to the wing), the right-hand lines crossed over the left-hand ones.
As you pull the wing upward as smoothly and evenly as you can with your back to the wind, it fills with enough air to help you turn around, face downhill, bend into the torpedo position (chest down, arms up and back), and run for your life, tugging a gigantic curved balloon behind you. When you're on a cliff or a mountain ridge, chances are the wind will lift you gracefully into the air. But when you're on a training hill, you're more likely to end up in an ungainly tangle on the ground.
However many reversals I suffer attempting my reverse launch, ending up in graceless belly flops several times, I do manage to get a few feet off the ground for a few seconds. Well, maybe fewer seconds than I imagine, which I'll admit sounds rather pathetic. But even skimming along at almost zero altitude for almost zero time is exhilarating, and gives me a real "Move over, Orville Wright" thrill.
Initial solo paragliding lessons (unlike tandem rides, in which one is simply piggybacked along with an instructor) are not so much about soaring through the air as they are about doing it yourself -- earning your wings, as Greenbaum puts it.
What does the future hold if I really want to earn them? At least two lessons to be qualified as a beginner (Para 1), about ten more to achieve novice certification, (Para 2), additional flying at challenging sites to achieve intermediate status (Para 3), and a large number of classes and maneuver clinics that can lead you finally to the realms of advanced and master paragliding (Para 4 and 5).
Up, up, and Not Quite Away: An altitude of 10 feet above a California pasture doesn't exactly qualify as soaring, but it's not bad for a beginner.
Credit: Olivier Laude
Sounds huge, but I can't help but entertain the thought of matriculating through the stages. When I manage to learn something the flash card terms and verbal instructions couldn't convey -- the feel of a wing in my hands, the wind catching it and twirling me around, sending me downhill and lifting my running feet from the earth -- that momentary triumph packs far more punch than any number of cozy rides alongside a pro who knows (and holds) the ropes.
By the end of the lesson, my classmate is able to beat my stellar record: He manages to get about 10 feet off the ground for quite a few seconds. It is, he says with a grin, "just enough to get you hooked."